2005 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner College/University Division
The Masculine Pen: Character and Correspondence in Pride and Prejudice
Austen did not write any of her six major novels in the epistolary style that was so popular in the eighteenth century, characters in her novels are frequently involved in the sending and receiving of letters. Letter writing was an essential social skill of the English gentry throughout the eighteenth century. Though letters of friendship and familial correspondence were primarily the domain of women, Austen’s men are often men of letters as well. A man’s education, rank, and place in society were all evident in his manner of writing. Essential long distance communication, whether for business or pleasure, could only be achieved by way of written correspondence, and so a man’s skill with language, his ability to convey not only facts, but also his opinions and feelings through the tone of his letter, was vitally important. A letter can function as a form of masculine soliloquy, imbued with a Shakespearean sense of honest representation of thought, whether good or ill. As a literary device, a letter allows the reader to glimpse the mind of its writer without authorial interference, and without the filter of the intended recipient’s view. A letter writer lives and breathes beyond the immediate proximity of the heroine, and beyond the author’s point of view, bringing a greater sense of realism to the novel.
Austen makes limited, but effective use of men’s letters in her 1813 novel, Pride and Prejudice, as she features eight letters, in whole or in part, written by men. Austen uses letters as a means of gaining access to her male characters’ thoughts and intentions. As a feminine narrative voice, Austen will never listen in to conversations between men, or read men’s solitary thoughts. She will only write from the perspective of what a lady can hear, observe, or do. However, though Austen normally conveys her male characters’ thoughts via their actions and conversations in public with female characters, one way she gets around her own rule is with the masculine pen.
Men corresponded with men. Men did not send personal letters to women unless they were related, engaged, or married to them. To circumvent this rule of etiquette, and avoid the raised eyebrows and wagging tongues of neighbors and family, men would need to hand deliver or send such a note by discreet messenger to a woman. This is precisely what Mr. Darcy does in Pride and Prejudice with his famous letter to Elizabeth. He waits for her in the park so that he might personally deliver his letter without arousing suspicion among friends and family who know nothing of his proposal of marriage or of her rejection of him.
When Mr. Collins says in his letter to Mr. Bennet, “Where it shall be my earnest endeavor to demean myself with grateful respect towards her Ladyship,” he speaks the truth; Mr. Collins is nothing if not earnest. The letter is a faithful prelude to the man. He is over-solicitous to his intended hosts, full of unnecessary apologies. Elizabeth picks up on his ridiculousness, and asks her fellow judge of character, Mr. Bennet, if he does not view Mr. Collins as a rather strange mix. Her father assents, adding that he looks forward to amusing himself with Mr. Collins’ folly (Austen 58-60). Mr. Collins’ letter is as full of pompous piety and self-promoting as Mr. Collins himself: “I flatter myself that my present overtures of goodwill are highly commendable” (58). Collins’ letter reveals his insincere and manipulative character, reflecting the manner in which he uses deference to gain preferment of position, gratitude and admiration, as well as financial and material advantage. Every decision Mr. Collins makes is with respect to appearances. There is a telling passage in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Hamlet says to his mother, “Madam, I know not seems” (Hamlet 1:2:79), pointing out the contrast between being and seeming, authenticity of feeling, and putting on a show. By contrast, Mr. Collins is all about “seeming,” worried only that making peace might seem disrespectful, not whether it would actually be disrespectful to his late father to make peace with Mr. Bennet. Mr. Collins’ letter, like Mr. Collins himself, is teeming with self-importance, and self-congratulatory phrases, such as “distinguished by,” “preferred me,” “my duty to promote and establish the blessing of peace,” “I flatter myself,” “my present overtures…highly commendable,” and “next in the entail” (does Mr. Bennet really need to be reminded?) (Austen 58-9). Mr. Collins also lacks masculine forthrightness and decisiveness, for all his decisions revolve around deference to Lady Catherine. He is a simpering, groveling, pathetic character, and one of Austen’s most brilliant creations. After hearing his letter read aloud by Mr. Bennet, Elizabeth sums up Mr. Collins perfectly when she says, “He must be an oddity, I think” (59).
Before the reader hears even a word of Darcy’s letter, Austen gives important clues to understanding his character. First, by waiting in the grove for Elizabeth, Darcy protects their privacy by not sending the letter by messenger. Secondly, wealthy Mr. Darcy is shown to be a good steward of expensive letter paper, for though he writes a long letter, he writes in very small handwriting, on both sides of two sheets, plus all over the inside of the unfolded envelope. In an earlier Netherfield passage, Austen reveals that Darcy often writes long letters, writes in a dignified learned style, and is careful and deliberate in his choice of words (43-4). The opposite of Mr. Collins in tone, Darcy’s letter starts off haughty, proper, and unapologetic—he demands Elizabeth’s attention—saying this letter is designed to explain his character, as he appeals to her justice to give him a fair hearing. Darcy understands how Elizabeth might have misunderstood him, how circumstances and the word of others, especially Wickham, could have given her an unfavorable impression of him. He owns that the charges laid at his feet, if true, would justify Elizabeth’s despising him. However, Darcy knows the rightness of his actions, and without apology, upon explanation, expects acquittal. Darcy then lays out the history and facts of each case, truthfully, though it brings him pain to do so. His passionate “in defiance of honor and humanity” shows the greater import he gives to the charge regarding Wickham, than that of harming Jane and Bingley’s prospects (185). Darcy’s lengthy explanation is carefully constructed, thoroughly analyzed, and well defended.
Near the end of his letter, as Darcy finishes his emotionally draining tale of Wickham’s near elopement with Georgiana, he suddenly recollects himself, draws back, and addressing Elizabeth as “Madam,” concludes with a renewed appeal to her good judgment. Darcy’s confidence in Elizabeth’s fidelity and discretion is quite remarkable, and shows his love for her, as well as his absolute belief in her character being as honest and trustworthy as his own. His letter is an honest reflection of a man who abhors “disguise of every sort” (182). The normally reserved Darcy reveals himself in writing in a manner he never would in conversation with Elizabeth. He conveys, perhaps unknowingly, how deeply Elizabeth’s rejection and scathing words of the previous night have wounded him, for he claims to not have been “master enough of myself “ the night before to speak of these matters, and also supposes Elizabeth may possess such an “abhorrence of [him] that should make [his] assertions valueless.” Darcy touchingly concludes his astonishing letter with the benediction, “God bless you” (191-2).
Another letter-writer featured in Pride and Prejudice is Mr. Gardiner, Mrs. Bennet’s brother. Austen describes him as “a sensible, gentleman-like man, greatly superior to his sister, as well by nature as education … so well-bred and agreeable” (132). Mr. Gardiner’s letters are not generally quoted in their entirety, but are usually shared in part through indirect narration. Mr. Gardiner is a faithful correspondent to a family anxiously awaiting news of their wayward daughter. His letters reveal a thoroughness of thought and action, as well as consideration for the worried family. When Mr. Gardiner’s letters are directly presented in the text, his writing style is revealed as eloquent, yet warm, and composed of lengthy and carefully detailed sentences. Austen comments that “when later introduced to Mr. Darcy at Pemberley, Elizabeth “gloried in every expression, every sentence of her uncle, which marked his intelligence, his taste, or his good manners” (238). Mr. Gardiner’s correspondence is a fitting reflection of his diligence in business, coupled with a kind, yet forthright manner. That Mr. Darcy and Mr. Gardiner later team up to arrange Lydia’s marriage agreement, signifies the mutual respect and understanding existing between them as men of honor and sense. At the end of the novel, when Austen writes of the future Mr. and Mrs. Darcy’s various relationships with their extended family, she concludes by saying that “With the Gardiners, they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them,” giving the Gardiners the place of honor in the last paragraph of Pride and Prejudice.
By contrast, when Mr. Collins finds out about Lydia’s running off with Wickham, he sends Mr. Bennet another letter affecting the pretence of sympathy, but sounding more like one of “Job’s counselors,” saying it would be better that Lydia had died, rather than Mr. Bennet bear her disgrace (278). Every remark is based on appearances and perceived judgments on himself and/or Mr. Bennet. Additionally, Mr. Collins not only shares the situation with Lady Catherine and her daughter, in violation of the confidentiality of the clergy, but relays condescending remarks from the Lady herself, asking, “Who will connect themselves with such a family?” (278). Showing no compassion, Mr. Collins first blames the Bennets for being overly indulgent with their daughter, but then consoles them, saying not to take it too hard, for Lydia must have been “naturally bad” (278). Mr. Collins concludes his note by musing with some satisfaction on the fact that he narrowly missed being connected himself with their family and such dishonor.
Mr. Collins has not finished with writing letters either. He later writes to caution Mr. Bennet against a marriage between Elizabeth and Darcy, fearing Lady Catherine’s disapproval. Full of pompous, unholy and hypocritical advice to the end, the Reverend Mr. Collins further advises Mr. Bennet to “forgive [Lydia and Wickham] as a Christian, but never to admit them in your sight, or allow their names to be mentioned in your hearing.” Mr. Bennet pauses his reading aloud to sarcastically interject, “That is his notion of Christian forgiveness!”
Mr. Bennet himself dashes off the final installment of the masculine pen, this time in reply to Mr. Collins on the soon expected marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy. Mr. Bennet’s short letter, a faithful reflection of its author, is imbued with irony and sarcasm, but the reader rightly assumes that its deeper meaning will be lost on Mr. Collins. Mr. Bennet’s advice to his self-serving cousin concerning the ill-humored Lady Catherine: “If I were you, I would stand by the nephew. He has more to give” (362).
As a letter writer shares his or her thoughts in an intimate manner with the intended recipient of the letter, so Austen, in her wonderfully ironic voice, reveals the characters and manners of her Regency men through narration, dialogue, and imbedded correspondence. Through a judicious use of letters, and conversations about letters, Austen conveys a sense of immediacy to the plot, and adds a delightful texture to the novel’s structure. Using the masculine pen, Austen gives memorable voice to her wonderfully crafted male characters, as she carefully carves on her bit of ivory the conflict between propriety and passion that is Pride and Prejudice.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice (1813). New York: Everyman’s Library, 1991.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. 1601. The New Folger Library Shakespeare.New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.